Make pasties, not War

Volunteers roll out the dough for dozens of pasties for St. Augustine Catholic Church in Republic on a recent November day.

Volunteers roll out the dough for dozens of pasties for St. Augustine Catholic Church in Republic on a recent November day.

 by Katherine Larson

“It’s a fine day to be rolling pasties,” cheerful voices called out from St. Augustine’s basement one snowy morning in November. There, in the kitchen, enthusiastic pasty-makers were plying their craft.

Many of them wore T-shirts emblazoned “Make Pasties, Not War,” along with caps embroidered, “St. Augustine Pasty Crew: 1000 or Bust.” The latter slogan refers to the now-legendary November day when the group baked a huge quantity of pasties—as many as 1,500—finishing only after Mass that evening. Most caps are decorated with pins, some in the shape of small pasties and others bearing slogans: “I [heart] St. Augustine Pasties.” “Pasty: Love at First Bite.” “St. Augustine Pasty Crew: Too Blessed to be Stressed.”

For decades, the people of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Republic have been making and selling pasties. It started as early as 1959, said Gerry Gardner, who was a stalwart member of the pasty crew back then and remains one today, nearly sixty years later.

Sister Margey Schmelzle, the parish administrator, told the story. Faced with a decaying building, after World War II the church started worshiping in a Quonset hut. Eventually, it was clear that a new church building was needed, and they decided on pasties as the way to pay for it. What ensued was “the church that pasties built” —a $130,000 structure paid for by seventeen years worth of pasty sales, and now heated, electrified and maintained by those same sales.

At first, the pasty-makers assembled raw pasties in the rectory kitchen, then carried them on trays throughout the town to volunteers’ home ovens, returning to collect and distribute them once they were baked. Back then, says Sister Margey, the priest was known throughout the U.P. as the “Pasty Priest.”

“Not because he helped make them—he didn’t—but because they used his home,” Sister Margery said. “Everywhere he went, he smelled like pasties.”

The new building, dedicated in 1963, includes an impressive kitchen with oven space for 140 pasties at a time, so there is no more reason to traipse through Republic streets with raw pasties. And Republic itself has changed a lot; the mine closed and, according to the Census Bureau, population plummeted from 1,417 in 1960 to 276 in 2010.

But there is still lots of work, and there are still enough people to do it. Not all of them are St. Augustine parishioners, Sister Margey explained.

“If we were to depend only on church members, we’d have had to stop,” she said. “But people from all over town, from other churches, from other towns have come to help. So now it’s Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and people with no religion at all. It’s a real community gathering.”

Pasty preparations begin several weeks before anything goes in the oven. First, sign-up sheets are distributed throughout Republic: at Peter’s True Value Hardware Store, The Summer Place, Maki’s Mini-Mart, the Republic Town Hall, St. Vincent de Paul and, of course, St. Augustine itself. St. Augustine’s sister parish, Sacred Heart in Champion, also maintains a list, and cognoscenti from throughout the U.P. and beyond sign up via telephone.

St. Augustine’s Ray Magnuson takes fifty-two pasties to the senior citizen high-rise in Ishpeming. Personnel from the UP Health System—Bell, also in Ishpeming, get together to submit a substantial order. So do residents of Phoenix, Arizona, who ask pasty people to freeze their pasties until they can get to Republic for the summer. And so on.

Organizers type up the lists and calculate how many of what ingredients will be necessary. In November, with orders for 850 pasties, they bought 450 pounds of potatoes from Johnson’s Potato Farm in Sagola (plus an additional hundred pounds to donate to the St. Vincent de Paul food bank), corresponding quantities of beef and pork from Smokehouse Glenn in Ishpeming, and bushels of rutabagas and onions, and flour and lard from Jubilee and other area stores.

The fun begins in earnest on the Wednesday of pasty week, when women gather at the church to prepare rutabagas.

“We peel the rutabagas by hand, then hand-cut them into chunks which we put through a dicer,” pasty crew veteran Cindy Rautio said.

While customers can order pasties without rutabagas, most prefer this traditional vegetable.

“We’ll get requests for maybe a dozen, at most, pasties without rutabaga,” said Sister Margey. “Most people prefer them with.”

After dicing, the vats of rutabaga go into the refrigerator.

Thursday is potato day, traditionally the purview of the men of the church, said Bill Fowler.

“Working on the potatoes started with the Men’s Club, back when there were forty or fifty guys doing it and they did it at night, after work,” Fowler said. “My dad wasn’t even Catholic, but he was part of that Men’s Club.”

a member of the St. Augustine pasty-making crew works on the pasties' filling

A member of the St. Augustine pasty-making crew works on the pasties’ filling.

Now the men, sometimes aided by a few women, gather on Thursday morning. “We’re tired and re-tired,” they joke, but still have plenty of energy for pasty-making.

Rod Gardner mans an old machine used for cleaning up the potatoes, while the other men use paring knives and peelers for the more detailed cleaning and de-eying processes. By the time everyone’s Thursday morning stint is done, hundreds of pounds of potatoes gleam whitely in bins of water, awaiting their Saturday destination.

First, though, comes Friday, the day for dough. It begins with Helen Henry.

“I show up to do the dough machine,” Henry said. “That’s my job, and I do it.”

Into an old-fashioned mixer she measures flour, lard, water and salt, then monitors the machine’s powerful dough hook. The resulting batch of dough suffices for forty pasties; she’ll repeat the process several dozen times.

Two women divide each batch of dough in half, roll each half into fat sausages, and then slice each sausage into twenty rounds. Rautio is one of the experts: using her hand and thumb as a guide, her flashing knife makes quick work of the dough, with every slice clean, smooth and even. The rounds are then attacked by an energetic group of women wielding rolling pins, who smooth them into dinner-plate-sized circles. These in turn are handed down the table to Gardner, who neatly stacks them, separated by wax paper, into piles of twenty.

Kathy Johnson wheels cartloads of the stacked pasty rounds into the entry, where cool temperatures keep them pliable until the next day’s assembly. And Kim Isaacson takes the scraps of lardy dough home to feed birds—she has even seen eagles swoop in for the treat.

Saturday is the big day. Sister Margey arrives to turn the ovens on at 5:30 a.m. By 6:00 a.m., a dozen or more workers have joined her, hard at work.

The biggest crowd gathers around a large square table, talking and laughing while they intently chip potatoes. St. Augustine’s pasty crew is proud of those chipped potatoes, and they claim that chipping adds an important contribution to their pasties’ flavor.

Ray Ringuette, a relative newcomer, was taught how to chip by Fowler, and he describes his technique with pride.

“When you pull the knife along, you give a little jerk upwards to pop out a chunk of potato,” said Ringuette. “That makes all the difference.”

Perhaps exposing more surface area than a simple dice enhances the flavor. Maybe, one chipper speculates, the sharp edges of cubes would risk piercing dough. Really, it’s the way these pasty-makers have always done it, and it’s part of the mystique of St. Augustine pasties.

Giant bowls of chipped potatoes are trundled over to a stand-up table where Mary Laabs has been measuring out careful scoops of meat for the mixers. These workers measure out potatoes, rutabaga and onions, plus a little salt and pepper, into another hefty bowl. They add four big balls of meat and then mix all the ingredients thoroughly.

“Fedora used to say that it’s mixed enough when it just slides off your hands,” Henry said.

“Fedora” was Fedora Angelina Fowler, Bill Fowler’s mother, whose name remains legendary at St. Augustine. She emigrated from Italy with her own mother, he said. It was the 1930s, and they didn’t like what Mussolini was doing in Italy. So Fedora’s father found work in Republic and then brought his family over on the S.S. Christopher Columbus. Pasties aren’t traditionally Italian food, but Bill’s father was a Cornishman who worked in the mines, so Fedora learned fast.

Gardner remembers her well.

Rows of pasties

Rows of pasties

“She was the Pasty Lady, and she wanted it done right,” Gardner said. “If you made a mistake, she’d gently tap you on the shoulder.”

Others described it more raucously: “When we’re assembling the ingredients, if someone sees that a big chunk of potato slipped through, they’ll wave it at the chippers. ‘Fedora would have thrown it at you!’ Her name is mentioned at every pasty sale we have. With her in charge, nothing ever went haywire.”

Once the ingredients are mixed to Fedora’s exacting standards, they are trundled over to the pastry table, where nimble-fingered ladies have laid out rounds of dough. A towering scoopful of the meaty mixture is decanted onto each round of dough. Then the assemblers fold the pastry over, tuck it neatly in all around, and place it on trays.

In the kitchen itself, Kathy Johnson is hard at work slotting trays into ovens—four or five at a time per oven, with six ovens going at once—and then out again as the pasties reach golden-brown crusty perfection. At an hour apiece, those 850 pasties will keep her baking for at least seven hours.

Customers head down the stairs to the St. Augustine basement as the fragrance starts to waft out over Republic. Some have ordered one, two, or just a handful of pasties. Others walk out with bags or boxes full. Leftovers are rare, but any extras end up on a tray at Peter’s True Value Hardware, where their fragrance entices lucky passersby to snap them up.

“People buy pasties for themselves but also to ship to their relatives far away,” Gardner said. “People with family downstate will arrange a rendezvous, taking a batch of pasties to the Mackinac Bridge and meeting them there to hand the pasties off. There’s a retired dentist who lives in Green Bay who always places a big order and then drives up to get them.”

Lani Valenzio had something to add to Gardner’s story.

“My ninety-six-year-old Aunt Alice is in a nursing home in Green Bay,” Valenzio said. “One of the nurses brought her a pasty. It turned out that she’d gotten the pasty from the dentist—it was one of our pasties.”

Tammy Mattson plays a major role in all this. Described by the others as the real powerhouse of the group, Mattson downplays her own work, saying it’s all about the dedicated group of volunteers.

“We all do this together,” said Mattson. “None of us could do it alone. It’s something that we really do well, all of us working together. Everybody does a little bit of everything, and then it all comes together.”

What makes the St. Augustine pasties so special?

“We use lard for the crust; that makes all the difference in the world,” said Sr. Margey. “We roll the crust out by hand, never by machine, and that makes a big difference too. We chip the potatoes by hand. And we grind really good meat—beef and pork – together to get a delicious blend of flavors.”

She added that pasty-making contributes to the spirit, not just of the church, but also of the town as a whole.

“Our work days aren’t griping sessions,” said Sister Margey. “It’s just so much fun. It engenders a real spirit of warmth and camaraderie in the whole community. The fellowship brings people together. We go away dead tired but profoundly satisfied.”

The St. Augustine pasty-makers aim to sell pasties six times each year: January through May, usually on the first Saturday of each month, and in November on a Saturday chosen to coincide with the opening of firearm hunting season.

This year, January sales will be on Saturday, January 9, with sign-up sheets posted around town by mid-December. Regulars know that they are coming and hurry to place their orders.

The reason is that notorious Saturday of 1,500 pasties, a day Sister Margey remembers well.

“We’d started at 5:30 a.m.,” she said. “That night, we pulled the last batches out of the oven at ten to seven, went upstairs for evening service, and then came back down again to bag them up, working till 8:30 p.m. It was too much. We said, ‘Never again.’”

Now, therefore, the pasty crew places a limit on how many they can bake, and eager pasty-eaters must act promptly.

It’s worth it. These pasties are amazing: fragrant, filling, flavorful. And they are redolent of the spirit of the community that made them—a community joined together in food and fellowship.

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